Reading about Wikipedia’s success via peer production and “free failure” this week got me thinking, “How has Wikipedia – and social media, with its open-access to information – impacted health?” Well, it’s made a huge impact. Online resources have become a persistent player in health care. According to the Pew Internet’s Health Online 2013 report, 35% of U.S. adults have consulted online resources to match symptoms with a medical diagnosis. Almost 60% of adults have looked online for health information, and over a third are “online diagnosers.” However, only half of these “online diagnosers” followed up with a clinician regarding what they found online; 38% felt that their “condition” could be taken care of at home. And, 77% of online health seekers started their search at a search engine, such as Google, Bing, or Yahoo, followed by 13% who started at a site that specialized in health information, like WebMD. Perhaps not surprisingly, Wikipedia is now the leading single source of health care information for both patients and clinicians. In fact, according to IMS Institute for Healthcare Informatic’s January 2014 report, Engaging Patients Through Social Media, as many as 50% of physicians in the U.S. who go online use Wikipedia to get information.
Wikipedia has been around since January 15, 2001. It is openly editable and collaboratively written over the Internet by unpaid volunteers. As of this month, it has 32.4 million freely usable articles in 287 languages, written by over 47 million users across the world. It is the sixth most popular website, after Google, Facebook, YouTube, Yahoo!, and Baidu. It is the only reference website amongst the top 100 most popular sites, and the top external site visited after Google according to the PewInternet.
Regarding health, what do people search for on Wikipedia?
The IMS report states that the top 5 conditions searched for are Crohn’s disease, tuberculosis, pneumonia, multiple sclerosis, and diabetes.
In general, people use Wikipedia to read about rare diseases rather than common conditions. Patients specifically use it as a starting point for self-education. And, patients 38 and younger are more likely to read information on treatments prior to beginning treatment, while those over 54 are more likely to search after starting treatment.
So should I be getting information from Wikipedia?
While not a .gov or .edu, the public perceives Wikipedia as a credible source of information. Matt and Amanda have already written great posts about determining if health info online is trustworthy, or total hooey. Use Wikipedia at your own risk: it is crowd-sourced information which is not necessarily accurate or neutral. Other critiques include that it is subject to vandalism, written by bots, and has limited editor diversity (mostly white males from Western countries).
Use Wikipedia at your own discretion, but it’s here to stay.
As a health care provider I recognize that many of my patients and students will turn to Wikipedia. So, I aim address misinformation directly, in person, as the articles often contain many errors. Taking active parts in correcting these errors is also helpful, such as WikiProject Medicine, which includes a UCSF School of Medicine 4th-year, one-month elective course aimed explicitly at improving medical topic coverage.
For more information on online medical professionalism, check out this policy statement from the American College of Physicians and the Federation of the State Medical Boards: Greysen SR, Johnson D, Kind T, Chretien KC, Gross CP, Young A, et al. Online Professionalism Investigations by State Medical Boards: First, Do No Harm. Ann Intern Med. 2013;158:124-130.